The ink on his wrist itched. Outside the window of the tower block, the city was going about its business as it had for thousands of years. Autofloats and aircycles did the work of cars and bicycles, donkeys and horses. The ferries across the river ran over the water, powered by the sun, not engine-driven across the current, not paddled, sailed or hauled on ropes, but serving the same purpose of conveying goods and people across to the far shore, using the same narrow places and paths. He'd gotten a tattoo here once before, though it hadn't been a Watcher mark. His then-owner had habitually marked all his property, and Methos-Aris had been glad it was only ink and not a brand or a collar. A decorative mark, even: curves and lines shaped like a kind of dragon, high on the right buttock, easily seen in loincloth or chlamys. A decent master, though Methos hadn't stayed around very long. The ink hadn't even faded before he'd been pushed off the side of one of those very ferries, gotten rid of by the man who he had replaced as the master's body-slave. Not that his rival was likely to be taken back into the master's bed — but that certainly wasn't Methos' problem, once he'd gone into the water and 'drowned'. Slaves were not taught to swim. He'd lost himself in the crowd on the far side of the river, and joined a caravan going north.
Twenty five hundred years later, Methos watched the artist as she worked, keeping her tools in order for the next Watcher-graduate, regular ink in snap-in refillable tubes that went in the well-used, lovingly polished and maintained nearly antique hollow-needled pen-gun, single-use applicators of the new Watcher-custom/unique formula, chip-gun, sterilizer, and so forth. She was the youngest of the three Watcher-approved tattoo artists; her pen-gun older than she was. She could be the many-times-great-granddaughter of the man who had marked his skin all those years ago, or no connection in the least, but her hands were as graceful and strong, and her eye seeing more than most, and with better ideas of what she was doing than many.
Methos knew, (had known, likely would know again,) people for whom getting a tattoo was nearly an ecstatic religious experience, others for whom the endorphin rush was profoundly and exquisitely sexual. Some hardly reacted at all, and it was entirely about the image, the message, the outer presence of the thing, whether as a mark of belonging, or remembrance, or life-passage.
For him, a tattoo was a matter of attentive endurance. Suppressing his quickening thoroughly enough that no hint of spark or static came through during the process, both to keep his skin from rejecting the ink, healing too fast, and simply so as not to raise alarm, was work. The effort had to be kept as completely from the person wielding needle or gun or inking instrument as well, though it was easy enough to channel that into perfectly in-character apprehension and nervousness. (Brayden Benjamin Adams was needle-shy. Most of his personae were, when said needles were directed at him.)
The Watcher-mark was a rite of passage, certainly, and looked at from a certain point of view, it was the functional equivalent of a trial-marker or old gang-sign. (It really was no wonder that law enforcement and those Immortals that knew what the symbol meant treated it as such, either. Especially when the wearer was found where they had no obvious business nosing about.) Now, it seemed, the Council had come up with a new wrinkle. Not just a (theoretically) permanent symbol, inked under the skin, but a tracking-chip. That really did not bode well, and was one of the reasons Methos had taken the risk of infiltrating the Watchers again so soon after Adam Pierson's 'death'. He had to know what they were up to. Just how much of a danger the Watchers were, as opposed to a resource. If it was yet going to be possible to work with the Watchers, instead of around them. His quickening would make short work of the chip, pretty much as soon as he stopped holding it back. (Which also meant coming up with a very good explanation/accident. He had several possibilities in mind, including a workaround for not zapping the replacement when they got around to insisting on it.) But what about when they came up with trackable ink? Even more sophisticated biometrics? There were nightmare scenarios down the road, and it mattered that they all — Watchers and Immortals both — were thinking ahead and preparing for them.
Because what Watchers had now, other shadow organizations had as well, and governments and would-be powers would have in very short order. They were careening headlong into the future with this stuff, and there were times when Methos had no idea what kind of world it was going to be next year, much less next decade. But there was no point in thinking too much about it, either. Because whatever the future would be, now was the most immediately important moment. Plan for the future, remember the past, but live now.
And right now, the ink on his wrist itched, a faint burn that ran up and down the nerves of his arm, pulsed with the beat of his heart. The pattern was complete, the chip in place but not yet active. When all the graduates of this Academy class were done, then the sealant would be applied, neat little high-tech bandages that would hasten the healing and set the ink. It was supposed to also make it possible to 'cloak' the ink, but Methos had his doubts about that. Useful if it worked, though. Easier than makeup, or long sleeves. Or, like the youngest of this class, having the Watcher-sigil incorporated into an entire sleeve of colored pigment.
Ink. He'd known people who wore their stories on their skin, stark black lines on pale, chalk white or pink scars on dark, color and texture and meaning on every shade in between. Caspian had trained up a succession of captives to keep the designs on his scalp sharp-edged and dark, and Kronos had made use of them occasionally, choosing to emphasize or obscure the scar on his face as the whim struck. Silas tried it once or twice, but hadn't liked the sensation of the needles or the prickle of the ink under the skin, and chose to paint his face for raids most of the time. Methos had quite deliberately used woad and indigo, though he couldn't now recall quite why, just that he had. The stain had lasted longer than some of Kronos' tattoos.
Sometimes Methos thought his skin was like vellum, like parchment or plastic flimsies, written over each lifetime, be it short or long, hard or luxurious, lived out in the public eye or one of a few, or alone in a crowd or a hermitage, marked with toil, perfume, hard hands and loving. Then all was scraped away like old ink on dying, his page blank again with returning breath. But it wasn't blank. The ghosts of all the words ever written, all the lives, all the touches, were still there, invisible, unseen but remembered, when he cared to look. Another medium, another kind of record.
The artist touched Methos' fingers, and Brayden startled a little, brought back into the moment, the here-and-now. She smiled at him, saying sympathetically, "All finished. You can relax now."
Methos-Brayden smiled back as he got up from the chair, part of his attention still going to holding his quickening away from his wrist, but that was much easier than keeping it wholly still. "Thank you," Brayden said softly, "you were very easy on me. I appreciate that."
"You held very still, and made it easy for me. It was a pleasure, and I hope you have a long and happy career. Take care."
"I will." Methos gave her a little nod, the barest shadow of the bow he given to honor the artist all those years ago, meaning it more this time, "You too."
A Watcher-mark. Skin-deep or soul-deep, permanent or ephemeral, sacrament or desecration, it was both more and less than the ink that prickled and burned as his quickening grumbled at the insult of it. Joe had understood, Duncan still didn't entirely, why he did this, why he courted the danger, inhabited the role, was a Watcher.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who bears witness? Who will remember?